Oil 2014: Total has built a sizeable position in Abu Dhabi. But having been beaten by Shell on the Bab gasfield tender, the French oil producer will need to innovate to beat the competition.
Total commitment to the future of Abu Dhabi's energy reserves
The computer, so noisy that earplugs must be worn to approach it and so massive that its computing capacity can only be expressed in the monumental "petaflop" unit, is the largest of its kind in the world.
Pangaea, as the French major Total has christened its latest seismic imaging machine, is a US$60 million, 100-tonne elephant capable of performing 2.3 quadrillion operations per second - enough horsepower to create an image of underground hydrocarbon layers in a matter of hours, rather than days or months.
But in a matter of months, it will no longer be the sole king of industrial computing by size - once BP installs a nearly identical model.
The majors have long been in tight competition, whether today on reservoir-mapping technology or in the 1990s on acquisitions to transform themselves into the world's biggest vertically integrated companies. And nowhere is that race tighter than in Abu Dhabi, where Total is seeking to defend its place alongside Royal Dutch Shell, BP and ExxonMobil in the emirate's oldest concession, a contract for onshore fields awarded at the onset of the Second World War that is due to expire next year.
Of all of them, Total has been the most open about its strategy in courting the emirate, including a ubiquitous advertising campaign showing an Emirati and a Frenchman with the motto "Your innovative partner since 1939". Earlier this year, François Hollande, the French president, flew in to throw the government's support behind France's flagship oil company, and Christophe de Margerie, the chief executive with the famous moustache, has also visited many times.
Back at Total's technology centre in the Pyrenees, where Pangaea the computer lives, teams of the best and brightest scientists are injecting carbon dioxide and specialised soap-like chemicals into Abu Dhabi rock samples in a quest to find the perfect technology for each of the emirate's fields. Researchers are exhorted by motivational posters to display four qualities - solidarite, transversalite, audace and ecoute - that roughly translate to being flexible and daring while still listening and working as a team.
"I think we have something different, which is humanity, which is listening and understanding," said Mr de Margerie. "We understand more than others how to live - how to live in Yemen, how to live anywhere."
But for now, the efforts have yet to yield concrete results. Last week, Shell confirmed that it had beaten Total on a tender to develop the Bab sour gasfield, an asset pursued by Total for nearly a decade. Decades pumping gas laced with sulphur, which can be dangerous in large quantities, at the company's flagship Lacq field in the south of France had proved Total had the expertise to develop Bab, executives hoped. That did not prevent Total from being underbid, an experience which recalled Areva, the French nuclear company, missing out on Abu Dhabi's nuclear contract to the rival bid of Korea Electric Power Corporation in 2009.
Mr de Margerie was philosophical about the decision.
"Now we will try to learn why they have been cheaper than we were," he told reporters in Paris. "That's important to understand, to be better the next time. But at the same time, what's important is to prove, as I did, that we are serious partners, and when we said we will make a firm offer, we did it."
Bab, however, is a minor loss in the context of Total's expansion into faraway oil frontiers. Since 2006, the company has invested on every continent except South America and Antarctica and added new countries to its portfolio such as Togo, Bulgaria and the Philippines. In terms of technology, it has branched into North American shale and Chinese tight gas, and today it estimates it has the rights to 11.4 billion barrels in reserves, with nearly half of that gas.
Between 2010 and today, it was the second among the majors in terms of net acreage signed, with 80 per cent of that offshore, and in about the same period it doubled its exploration potential from 3 billion to 6 billion barrels, according to Olivier de Langavant, the senior vice president of strategy for Total Exploration & Production.
"We have acquired more risky acreage, but with a bigger target - what we call elephants and big cats," he said.
The expansion comes as majors such as Total compete in a global playing field transformed by the rise of smaller, upstream-focused players such as Occidental and East Asian state oil companies that may lack the latest technology but represent the biggest energy demand centres.
A willingness to invest during low oil prices, not just the peaks, will keep the majors relevant, said Mr de Langavant.
In Abu Dhabi, Total has steadily invested with the emirate and is unique among the majors for holding the most state partnerships - eight, including offshore fields, a fertilizer plant, a gas pipeline and a solar array. It also is the majority shareholder in the Abu Al Bukhoosh field offshore, one of the few fields allocated to a single foreign partner.
It has also invested in sending promising Emiratis to engineering schools and posting them within the organisation, with the understanding that the nationals may return to Abu Dhabi to assume leadership roles.
"Bringing nationals to meetings in the North Sea or Africa helps to make them [have] less of the NOC country view and more [access to the vision] of the IOC," said Arnaud Breuillac, the president of Middle East exploration and production. "This does help alignment because they understand why we want to do things."